Opinion and Editorial

Persian undercurrent in Islamic civilisation

Matein Khalid
Filed on November 29, 2005

THE Arabs defeated the armies of Yazdegard III, the last king of the Sassanid empire at the battle of Qadassiyah a mere twenty years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).

This was one of the pivotal moments in the history of the Middle East and the world. In a single afternoon, the heartland of Persia was conquered by nomad soldiers from the Arabian desert. The ancient imperial bureaucracy and priesthood of the Sassanid empire crumbled in the onslaught and Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the religion of Iran forever.

The Persian encounter with Islam would echo across the centuries down to our time with unique resonance. The ancient Byzantine and Coptic civilisations of Syria, Palestine and Egypt submerged beneath the banner of the Islamic faith and the Arabic language. Yet while Persia became Muslim, it never turned Arab. The ancient homeland of the Medes and the Aryans retained its distinct cultural and even political identity even after the Arab conquest and the destruction of the Sassanid empire.

The impact of Persian culture on Islam, Tahzeeb Ajami, created one of the most literary, aesthetic and avant garde- societies in the history of civilisation. Persian was the court language of the Mughal empire in India and the national anthem of Pakistan is still pure Persian. Persian etiquette and language dominated the culture of urban Afghanistan well before the time of Nadir Shah, the Persian king who looted the fabled Peacock Throne from Mughal Delhi. The Shia enclaves in the Arab world — South Lebanon, Basra and Najaf, and the Gulf — are linked by culture, religion and history to Iran.

Tehzeeb Ajam, Persian culture, bought Islam to Central Asia, India, and Azerbaijan. At the end of the first millennium of the Hijrah, the three superpowers of the Islamic world were Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, and Mughal India. These three empires were suffused with Persian culture. Arabic was the language of religion and the law in all three courts, but Persian was the language of poetry, literature, diplomacy and aesthetics. Yet why did the Persian language survive the Arab conquest while Aramic or Coptic died, except as liturgical languages in Egypt? Medieval Persian evolved in a manner similar to the history of English after the Norman Conquest, when the old Anglo-Saxon language borrowed entire vocabularies from French, but retained its fundamental essence.

Sassanid Persia, unlike Egypt or Syria, was the nodal point of a vibrant, powerful imperial state, not the province of a decadent Byzantine Roman empire. In fact, the Sassanid Shahs — Ardeshir, Bahram and Shahpur — fought and even vanquished the Roman empire for generations. So it was not difficult for Persian culture to survive the Arab conquest — after all, Egypt, Iraq and Syria did not boast the sort of national epic poetry that defined the legacy of Hafiz, Saadi and Firdowsi. The pride of Iran in its ancient past survives intact even now. I have friends named Ardeshir, Cyrus, Mehrdad and Khusro from Iran. But I have no friends named Hammurabi, Amanhotep, Ramses, Senardip or Ptolemy from the Arab world.

In Arab politics, the Abbasid empire was the most palpable synthesis of the ancient Persian imperial tradition. A Persian convert to Islam, Abu Muslim, led the Korasani warriors who overthrew Marwan II, the last Ummayad caliph and destroyed the Syrian Arab aristocracy of the Damascus caliphate. Abu Jaffer Al Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, founded Baghdad on the site of the ancient Persian citadel of Ctesiphon on the Tigris. His imperial, bureaucratic state was dominated by Persian elites who ran the politics and army of the Abbasid empire for centuries. Caliph Haroun Rashid’s most powerful vizier was the Persian Jaffer Barmakid. Caliph Mamoun revolted against his brother Amin from Khurasan, Mehdi appointed a Shia Imam as his successor to appease his restive Persian subjects. The Alf Laila (the Thousand and One Nights) were written by a Persian and, once the Baghdad Caliphate disintegrated under the Mongol holocaust, petty princelings created Persian dynasties from Herat to Azerbaijan for the first time since the Arab conquest of Iran. From the ancient communications networks of Cyrus the Great (adopted by Caliph Mansur as his postal and secret police service, the barid) to chess (whose terminology is still Persian. Checkmate is ‘Shah maut’. The king is dead) to the rise of the Shia messianic doctrine and esoteric sects, the impact of Persian culture on Islamic societies was transformational, not cosmetic. Even the theology of Christian Europe has its roots in ancient Persia. Ahriman, the Zorastrian deity of evil and darkness, was the prototype of Satan, Mephistopheles and Shaitan. It is also no coincidence that the only organised priesthood in the Islamic world exists in the Iran, the political Ayatollahs of Qum being the latest incarnation of the Zorastrian priests who were the kingmakers of the Sassanid empire.

The Persian-Arab schism has not vanished in the fourteen centuries since Qadassiyah. The Shah (whose dynasty was named after an ancient Iranian language Pahlavi) tried his best to pay homage to Iran’s pre-Islamic past, to link his parvenu clan to the mythical Persian kings — Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes. In fact, his extravaganza at Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy only served to hasten the 1979 revolution. Persian nationalism was whipped up by Khomeni amid the slaughter of the Shatt al Arab even as Saddam Hussein’s Baathist propagandists demonised the ancient enemy from ‘the mountain of terror’, the high plateau of Elam from where Darius, the Mongols, the Safavids and now the Ayatullah’s armies had descended to seek to conquer historic Mesopotamia.

Modern Iran is an ethnic mosaic. Kurds, Turks, Baluchis, Azeries, Qashqais and Arabs coexist as satellites in the Persian state. Fifteen centuries after the battle of Qadassiyah, Persia still influences the prospects of war and peace in the Middle East, the faultline of the ‘clash of civilisations’ that once tore apart the Islamic world. From Xerxes, the Achaemenid King of Kings who invaded the Greek isles to Mossadegh, Ayatullah Khoemini and Mahmud Ahmednijad in modern times, Persia is the crucible of the existential geopolitical East-West chess game across the centuries.

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